One of the things I miss about having an active library card is the ease of discovering new series in a genre. (My local library is funded through municipal taxes; as I live outside the city limits and therefore don’t pay municipal taxes, having an active library card requires a high — though fair — annual fee. I’ve elected to not do so for the last few years.) When I had an active card, I could simply head over to the SF&F shelves in the new book room and see what looked unfamiliar and interesting. Without the card — and without the desire to pay full hardcover prices — I get a lot of my books through used paperback stores. But although it’s just as easy to find “new to me” books that way, there’s an obvious tendency to be a johnny-come-lately to a lot of things.
So it was with the works of Jim Butcher. I discovered his Dresden Files series of urban fantasy novels a few years ago and loved them. But it was only recently that I discovered his other series, the Codex Alera. Of course, there are advantages to coming to it late. The series is completed, so although I have to wait impatiently for the next Dresden Files book to hit paperback, I can pick up the rest of the Codex Alera at my leisure. Having just finished the first, Furies of Calderon, the odds are strong I’ll be reading the rest.
Like the Dresden Files, the novel is a fantasy; unlike that other series, there’s nothing urban or modern about it. Although it’s not exactly medieval either; close, in some respects (there are castles and keeps, certainly), but it feels like it owes a bit more to the Roman era than the typical Arthurian England style setting. Admittedly, this could just be me being led astray by the use of the terms Legionnaire and Cursor (in the classical “messenger” sense), and I’m hardly an expert on Roman society, but that’s how it came across to me.
In the nation of Alera the residents practice a form of magic called furycrafting, where they work their will through a partnership with elemental beings called furies. Everybody has a unique partnership with one or more furies that they share with nobody else. Everybody, of course, except one of the protagonists of the novel, a young boy named Tavi. Tavi is 15 years old and has yet to find his fury. Although this type of setup and subversion is commonplace among fantasy, Furies of Calderon is notable in that Tavi’s inability at furycrafting is not in any way a driving force of the plot. It’s not about him going out to find his fury, and — at least so far — his inability doesn’t mark him as some special superbeing with some other skill. It’s possible that will change in the rest of the series, but at least for the first novel, it made a refreshing change of pace wherein a protagonist’s relative disability is actually treated as such and he has to deal with things despite it.
In Tavi’s case, this means facing off against a horde of outside invaders who have their own abilities distinct from the Alerans. The Alerans and the Marat don’t even view each other as human, though it’s fairly clear from the writing that the audience is meant to see the Marat are just a different race. The interactions between the Alerans and the Marat, as well as the actions within each group indicate that although what’s shown so far is fairly basic, there’s some groundwork that’s been laid for the further development of these cultures. I would suspect Butcher wrote a “series bible” detailing the cultures before plotting out the stories.
Unlike the Dresden Files, which has the main character narrate with a lot of smart remarks, Furies of Calderon is a bit more serious throughout and is narrated in third person with changing perspectives. Besides Tavi, we are also treated to views through the eyes of his aunt and uncle who are responsible for the local villagers, and the Cursor Amara, who has been tasked by the First Lord to get to the root of an insurrection against him. We’re even occasionally given glimpses into the minds of the villains of the book. The characters — which have been one of Butcher’s strengths in his other books — are made all the more well-rounded by seeing them from so many different perspectives.
As for the story, the basic plot is reasonably simple but the path the story takes to bring that plot about is suitably complex. There are a lot of exciting moments, and everything plays out naturally from the events that came before them. While there are a few unexplained things left for the sequels, for the most part it tells a self-contained story. The protagonists are likeable and interesting, and the villains are suitably vile or intimidating. It does lack interesting side characters, but this is a relatively small complaint.
When it comes to the first novel in a series (at least when the novel is written with the intention of starting a series, as opposed to those that spawn sequels as an afterthought), there’s really only one important question at the end of reading it. Would I read the next? Based on my enjoyment of Furies of Calderon, yes I would.